Studies Slam Ads’ Effect on Kids

LOS ANGELES The Kaiser Family Foundation on Wednesday released a report on childhood obesity that lays some of the blame on advertising and singles out certain marketers by name.

The report comes on the heels of Monday’s American Psychological Association study that concluded advertising to children is “inherently unfair” because kids process ads “uncritically.”

The Kaiser study cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics data showing that the proportion of overweight children in the U.S. exploded from 4 percent to 15 percent among 6-11 year olds and from 5 percent to nearly 16 percent among 12-19 year olds, comparing 1963-70 to 1999-2000. The report quotes the Surgeon General as saying that the long-term effects of such obesity may exceed the risks involved in smoking cigarettes.

Alluding to a practice started by McDonald’s, the report criticizes “the trend toward ‘super-sizing’ food portions in restaurants and the increasing number of highly processed high-calorie and high-fat grocery products.”

Citing advertising as one culprit, the report says: “Much of the media targeting children is laden with elaborate advertising campaigns, many of which promote foods such as candy, soda, and snacks” and that “food advertisements children are exposed to on TV influence them to make unhealthy food choices.” It also concludes that “cross-promotion between food products and popular TV and movie characters are encouraging children to buy and eat more high-calorie food.”

Reviewing ads directed toward children, the study cited research showing a shift from snack foods to “canned desserts, frozen dinners and fast foods” as the category still second to breakfast cereals; that 70 percent of children 6-8 have been led by ads to believe fast foods are more nutritious than home-cooked meals; that 2-6 year olds in programs such as Head Start had been exposed to “embedded commercials.” SpongeBob Cheez-Its, Hulk pizzas, Scooby-Doo marshmallows and McDonald’s/Disney Happy Meals and Burger King Teletubbies, Rugrats, Shrek and Pokemon tie-ins were among the cross-promotions specifically identified.

The APA report, recommending that government regulate advertising directed to those under 7 or 8 years old, drew immediate industry reaction.

“The Federal Trade Commission has the authority to regulate in this area,” said Wallace Snyder, president and CEO of the American Advertising Federation in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think what the APA is saying is consistent with what the FTC believes. These are serious allegations being made. There are parents who decide the type of food that kids get.” Snyder said that is was “as if these recommendations are being made without the awareness of the FTC.”

Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers, Washington, said the industry is “deeply concerned about the obesity issue” but that “any attempts to ban or restrict children’s advertising are highly likely to be un-Constitutional. The courts have looked at these issues and stated that you can’t lower discourse in this society to the level of the sandbox.”